This is one of the most successful college productions I have directed. Ayckbourn was ahead of his time. Now we have several movies and TV series based on the idea of conscious synthetics. But best of all was the opportunity to introduce my students to the classic silent comedians. As a side note, the "pie in the face" gag was the greatest comic bit I have ever encountered. The audience roared and roared and roared.
This title has only one review listed, which completely dismisses the play. Don't believe it. The review below states: "When I finally traced down some reviews, I was interested to learn that London hailed it and after that really, no one liked it." Wow - didn't look very hard, did you? "Comic Potential" had its New York premiere at the venerable Manhattan Theatre Club in the Fall of 2000, after a hit run in London's West End. Notoriously cranky theatre critic John Simon raved about the London production, then gushed again over the New York production - as did other NY critics (http://nymag.com/nymetro/arts/theater/reviews/4120/).
At the time, my wife and I had two kids in Manhattan, and no money. We stopped going to see theatre for a number of years to pay for childcare. But when we read Simon's review, calling it, "one of the finest plays in my theatregoing decades" -- and hailing British actress Janie Dee's performance as Jacie (the sentient android "actoid") as not to be missed, we scraped together the money and went - and we were not sorry. (Here's Simon on Dee's performance as the lead: "We have read so much about legendary actresses, past and present, missing whose creations of this or that great role leaves us permanently deprived. Such a spectacular achievement is Miss Dee's. To miss Janie as Jacie -- perfectly blended and, after who knows how many performances in Britain, still as fresh as a daisy -- would be criminal; at the very least, an act of reckless spiritual self-deprivation. The fineness of detail, the range of emotion, the inventiveness and total rightness of the smallest gesture and the tiniest intonational shading -- but also of the most broadly farcical (yet still impeccably judged) or the most heartrendingly poignant (yet not one jot overdone) effect leaves one pleasurably gasping. I am not sure that I have ever seen its equal, but I am certain I have never seen, nor ever will see, its superior." This from Simon, who was infamously picky and sometimes outright nasty to actors.
So don't believe what you read below. The play's NY run was a smash success - and a Broadway run was scuttled as there were no theatres available at the time. The play does vary in tone, and on the page, may not seem hilariously funny. But that's Ayckbourn - he can alternately amuse, and break your heart. This is a superb play, with terrific roles and some sharp satire about television that rings true 14 years after its premiere. It deserves better recognition.
Never before has such a title rang true. In the case of Ayckbourne’s bizarre sci-fi comedy Comic Potential, a strange piece of his 77 published works, the play silently begs the question, What is my point in Life? Breaking down the reasoning for any published work has always been an intense interest of mine. Finding the true meaning to a works’ existence has challenged me to search for and find the underlying chord one finds under all great art. But with this oddity from the mind of one of Britain’s top comedic writers, one truly feels that the real joke in on a different audience all together.
When originally looking for tidbits on this piece, I found several articles remarking on the amazing wit of Ayckbourne, but could find no mention of this show. When I finally traced down some reviews, I was interested to learn that London hailed it and after that really, no one liked it. When I considered the concept and realized the necessary difficulties of the set changes, and the strange twisted meta theatre/TV issues mixed with dated vaudeville and 1980’s humor, I began to see the real challenges in its’ popularity.
Then there is the actual comedy, what little of it exists off the page. Besides a pie-in-face moment, which comes as a literal relief to audiences, having something finally to audibly gaffaw at, the play falls terribly flat in many instances. However, this gives room for actors to move into dangerous waters, the hazardous practice of ad-libbing. Potentially sinking or swimming in the intensely strange situation and environment, a futuristic TV studio with “Actoid” robot actors, which Ayckbourne has created, the actor can explore the landscape or drown in its’ chasms. So much for comic potential there.